Singing in Dialect, Part 2: When Brits Go GenAm

Like many young urbanites in the 2000s, I was obsessed with Joy Division. I’m not sure why this two-decades defunct* band from Manchester touched a nerve, but touch a nerve it did. Yet I always found it perplexing the way its British lead singer, Ian Curtis, sang with a strikingly American accent:

It’s a long-running tradition for both American and British singers to mimic African American Vernacular English when singing the blues or blues-derived genres like rock. But Curtis adopted an accent that vaguely resembled General American English. At a time when British singers used their own dialects, why did Curtis choose to sing in an voice so different from that his native Macclesfield-ian?

Curtis’ hypercorrective pronunciation of “flawed” so it sounds like “floored” recalls Paul McCartney’s jarring “I never sore them at all” from “Till There Was You.” In both cases, I am assuming these singers adopted rhotic pronunciations to sound more like their cousins across the pond (although both came from cities near rhotic Lancashire).

Sometimes such attempts result in fascinatingly muddled accents. For instance, Marcus Mumford, of the wonderful Mumford & Sons, mixes his native London with something else that is … American, West Country, Irish maybe? I actually find this mystery an intriguing asset:

Singers use non-native dialects when the particular style of music has a tradition of being performed in a particular region or by a particular ethnicity (as is the case with the Blues, Bluegrass, and Irish traditional music). I find it somewhat unusual, then, when a singer opts to change their accent to something like General American, which has few music styles associated with it. Why would singers choose to adopt a ‘unplaceable American’ voice?

*Defunct until they became New Order, that is.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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25 Responses to Singing in Dialect, Part 2: When Brits Go GenAm

  1. Maybe someone told these guys that Americans don’t like non-American accents, and the singers felt they needed to adopt GenAm to sell to a wider market.

    Another example that parallels the adoption of Black Vernacular is the 2010 Eurovision winner ( where a German singer adopts some kind of Cockney…thing. Maybe she’s mimicking punk?

  2. Sandra Jansen says:

    The German singer Lena was an interesting case. There were try-outs for who would go to Oslo and sing in the finale. The songs she chose to sing before were mainly by British singers. Here is the link for the songs she performed:
    I think that she was really into British music at the time and exaggerated what she heard in the songs and interviews. I think Germans were quite fascinated as well since Cockney is not a variety we hear when we learn English in school.

  3. rachel says:

    I learned from a linguistics student of UBC that singing is the voice through the path of least resistance and accents are affected.
    The “non-placeable American” accent was heard on TV and radio News broadcasts when there was training for such voice. That “accent” is Peter Jennings who is Canadian and I grew up hearing that “accent” in urban Southern Ontario.
    Has there been a traceable link to this in dialect studies in present day?

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    My take: It’s a musical tip of the hat due to a (mistaken) belief in American musical hegemony. As long ago as the early sixties, I remember wondering why all those English singers (including the Beatles) sounded like Americans. To my apparently naive way of thinking, a whole texture was lost in translation. Today, English singers of contemporary music seem not to do this as much. By the way, the ability to mimic a language in speech or song in its proper place, is a valuable tool, just as pronouncing a foreign language in a proper accent is to be preferred,but when it comes to popular music, an attempt to use someone else’s accent may fall on deaf ears.

  5. As a musician and a linguist (although I’ve never actually researched this in any way) my hunch is that for the most part, singing in accent is not usually a deliberate, conscious act. I know and am aware of performers who have a change in accent when they are speaking to an audience in between songs, also. It’s pretty common, and I think is just part of how some people deal with performing on stage, which not everyone is comfortable with doing, even if it is their chosen profession.

    • I agree that it’s not fully ‘conscious,’ although as a former classical singer, I was definitely taught a fairly specific accent to sing in. I find that, like accents in general, it’s a mixture of conscious and unconscious impulses. A lot of times, I think it starts with a certain reference point (such as African American English for rock singers) which then evolves to become something new entirely.

  6. Amy Stoller says:

    Liverpool, where McCartney is from, is in Lancashire (if you ignore contemporary political county lines, which are for administrative purposes) – but not near the rhotic areas of same. That sticks-out-like-a-sore “sore” is, as you say, hyper-correction. Compare with the thoroughly Scouse pronunciation of “care” at the end of the second line of “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”.

    I learned Scouse from listening to Beatles interviews when I was a little kid. It stood me in good stead; I got my first job Off-Broadway with that accent.

  7. @Amy,

    I suppose I’m using an overly American reference point for “close!” My impression, as per Peter Trudgill’s oft-reproduced map, is that you’d be able to find traces of rhoticity in rural areas about a half-hour outside each city. Then again, Liverpool and Manchester are only about a half hour from each other, so it can be quite a long linguistic journey in the UK.

    • Ed says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still a few rhotic Mancunians left. There are certainly rhotic speakers in Oldham and Rochdale, which within a 15-mile radius of Manchester City Centre.

      I don’t know the area around Liverpool as well, but I get the impression that you’d have to go further outside Liverpool to get to a rhotic patch.

      • I can see how a rhotic Mancunian would be more probable than a rhotic Liverpudlian; Manchester strikes me as slightly more of a regional hub (hence why we talk of “Greater Manchester”). Oldham and Rochdale are typical, or at least used to be; the SED also recorded Harwood (13 mi. from Manchester) as being almost fully rhotic.

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  8. Qaoileann says:

    Compare the Irish folk-singer Damien Dempsey, who is notable for retaining (and even, to my Dublin ears, exaggerating a bit) his working-class Dublin accent when singing:

    For what it’s worth, Marcus Mumford sounds pretty English to me when he sings.

    • I’m a fan of Dempsey’s, although I can’t say if he deliberately exaggerates his accent or not. I like that his accent while singing is so strong, though, especially in his traditional Irish covers. He reclaims the music from the kind of dialectal vagary that is more common for singers of the genre.

  9. AL says:

    I love that song my Mumford & Sons and the phrase “learn from your mother” struck me with its r-fullness. Not knowing where the band comes from within the UK, I just assumed it was natural to their home dialect. The “learn” especially doesn’t sound like American rhotic to me (but I guess that’s part of the appeal to me :)).

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  11. Tom says:

    I agree with Marc’s “American hegemony” comment. I think that when the Beatles and the other British Invasion groups came to the U.S., they were struck by the diversity of the country (as well as the fact that many of their American musical idols were not huge stars in their home country). Judging by the few times I’ve heard them imitate American accents in interviews or studio chatter in the ’60s (sessions for “Think For Yourself” in particular), it tends to sound something like John Wayne crossed with a New York street thug, with maybe a dash of Ivy League college student.

    One other note: Time flies! Joy Division’s demise was over THREE decades ago in actuality.

  12. Sooryan FM says:

    I didn’t like Coldplay’s ”foreign field” pronounced as ”fahren field” in VIVA LA VIDA, this is not General American, but a popular NYC/NJ accent…
    In another song Coldplay sing talk [täk]…

    talk [ä] + foreign [ä] is a strange combo…

    • Anna Carpenter says:

      In lead singer Chris Martin’s English accent, “foreign” would be ˈfɒrən. So maybe he has a “rule” somewhere in his mind like, “to do a faux American accent, change every instance of [ɒ] to [ä] .” This would change not only “lot” to [lät], but also to “foreign” to [ˈfärən]. I don’t think that’s the majority pronunciation of “foreign” in America though.

      However, that doesn’t explain täk. So maybe his “rule” goes like this: change every instance of [ɒ] and [ɔ] to [ä]. I agree that saying [täk] and [ˈfärən] is a strange combination. In fact, I would go further and say that it isn’t found in any American accent.

      • Anna Carpenter says:

        Damn, I meant to change ˈfɒrən and täk to [ˈfɒrən] and [täk]. It won’t let me now. Sorry if it’s confusing.

      • dw says:

        So maybe his “rule” goes like this: change every instance of [ɒ] and [ɔ] to [ä].

        That would in fact be (more or less) my advice to an Englishman wanting to sound like an American. But with one important qualification: before a written or pronounced /r/, change both to [ɔɚ].

      • Anna Carpenter says:

        My advice, if it’s worth anything to any English people out there on the interwebs (not likely):

        1. Use the vowel of “lot” in words like “thought”, “caught”, “hawk”, etc.

        2. Use the vowel of “palm” (“farm” would also work for most of you*) in the “bother class” of words (thus making “father” and “bother” rhyme)

        (This is after you’ve already learned to pronounce the letter r everywhere it’s written of course 🙂

        BTW, I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining about Chris Martin’s singing accent. I actually care very little about what accent he sings in. Secondly, this is getting a bit off topic and I’m sorry about that.

        * Except those of you who grew up on one. Only kidding. I just learned about that stereotype and I couldn’t resist.

        • Anna Carpenter says:

          Of course, if you really wanted to sound authentic you would have to incorporate the LOT-CLOTH split (in Wellsian terminology) into your American accent. So you wouldn’t apply change #2 to words like “cloth” (obviously), “off”, “Ross”, “coffee”, etc. And you may need to make a minor quality and/or quantity adjustment to the vowel you use in the LOT class. But I really hope no one’s taking my advice too seriously anyway and this off-topic tangent has gone on for too long already.

        • dw says:

          It’s a lot easier for a Brit to imitate a cot/caught merged American 🙂

        • Anna Carpenter says:

          It’s only the lack of a LOT-CLOTH split that makes it easier then. But the LOT-CLOTH split is no harder for Brits than the TRAP-BATH split is for Americans. Damn, I can’t stop leaving comments on this old post.

        • dw says:

          Yes, but is the TRAP-BATH split easy for Americans?

          The TRAP-BATH distribution is full of inconsistencies and anomalies. The BATH words really have to be memorized. The same is true (perhaps to a lesser extent) of the CLOTH words.